Spring Symphonies: 53/60 - Richard Strauss: Symphonia Domestica

Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestic was the penultimate of his big tone poems and many people think it was too big .  It was premiered in New York on 21 March 1904 having been finished on New Years Eve 1903.  It was so popular that two performance were given in April 1904 in Wanamakers  Department store in New York gives you a sense on Strauss’ world wide celebrity at the time and his eye for the commercial opportunity.  He was paid $1000 for these shop floor performances ($25,000 equivalent now). He was an unlikely showman - even on the podium conducting his one works film footage shows him to be economical with his gestures and facial expressions and seemingly completely detached in his physical reactions to the music.  His small baton beats time in orderly, tidy and demure fashion - none of those adjectives apply to this symphony.

Strauss’s subjects in his tone poems had largely been from literary sources with the rather less successful Aus Italian as a singular attempt to capture a place.  So many of his operas focused on the domestic drama - from the Greek tragedies Elektra and Salome to the rather more melodramatic or indeed comedic Rosenkavalier, Intermezzo, Arabella and his final opera Capriccio.  This symphony, like Ein Heldenleben, is autobiographical and turns domestic matters on their head by mapping the day of Strauss and his wife Paulina and their baby boy.  It isn’t melodramatic  though some of the music is certainly stretching its credibility, but it is both pictorial - like the tone poems and an intensely personal at relationships, like the operas.  Some critics found this collision of authorial intent too much to take, others thought that musically it just wasn’t up to standard.  It doesn’t have the signature epilogue of the earlier works. But it does have a vivid portrait of the couple’s lovemaking so you pay your money and you make your choice.

It is scored for an immense orchestra and the work at about 45 minutes long is at times. loud, complex and over-scored.  The work is split into four definitely symphonic movements: Introduction, Scherzo, Adagio and Finale.  The transitions are obvious and there are no breaks between movements.

It’s worth noting that Strauss was big on the incidental details which might bring familiarity to the scene even for those not familiar with his music  - there’s a point when the trumpet sounds out “Ganz der Papa” (‘just like father”) as the infant Franz Strauss is greeted by relatives.  Music is truly universal!

The piece opens with Strauss laying out various themes as he introduces the member of the family.  The impetuous Franz interrupting proceedings.  Theses are easy and familiar melodies.  Nothing here would frighten his audience.

The Scherzo brings more interruptions when Franz is bathed.  This is when you think about it, quite a hard subject for a composer to portray - the random events of bath time versus the strict structure of a symphony.  Strauss as ever is ingenious in moving between these two worlds.  The move via a fugue to bring together a familial theme which is a noble and deeply rooted theme of adoration and kinship.  It’s rather marvellous it gives me goosebumps.

The solo horn and violin take us back to Ein Heldenleben - hero and heroine closely entwined musically and no doubt physically. Franz’s interruption curtails further entwining for now.

The Cradle Song is some of the most beautiful orchestration in Strauss’ canon and the Cradle Song one of his finest melodies. Full of humanity - his world of song comes out here - such a personal utterance in such a grand work is hard to bring off.  It is a magical world of domestic bliss and harmony - about as far away from Elektra and Salome as one could get.

The clock strikes - peace reigns.

I suppose the love scene that ensues is the straw that broke the camel’s back for some people with this work.  Strauss was writing in a world which had banned his opera Salome for its content but also one where Debussy’s Prelude L’Apres Midi d’un Faune was nearly ten years old.  None the less the effect might have been too much for some.  Equally we only hear in the music what we know and for those expecting a beautiful rich orchestrated Adagio got one.  All be it one that has rather a lot of thrusting in it.  In the post-connubial glow there are hints of the violin solo which represents Pauline in Ein Heldenleben.  This is truly a very sincere and and emotional piece of writing for Strauss - buying up the idea that his home life was the most important thing in his life.  It  certainly ranges through some very passionate music.  There’s a tempestuous quality too - which fits with descriptions of the couple’s relationship.  A busy night then for the Strauss’.  Sleep plays a secondary role.  In the Berlin Philharmonic programme note which Strauss wrote he describes this section as “dreams and cares” - it is like Mendelssohn written large - and the moonlight music in Salome in colours.  The clock strikes in a household with an infant and only one thing can happen: bedlam. 

The finale is too long and too loud too early.  It starts with a double fugue on themes we’ve heard before and Strauss throws all his weight into a rich, display of both skill and bravura.  It boils over at times and thankfully is pulled back to the earth with Pauline’s music.  Richard’s themes are played out again too. The music is calmed as the family theme brings us back to the real point of this work.  It is a loving tribute to his family from a man who knew how to compose anything and how to create subtlety harmonised melodies which tug on the heart strings.  The ideal family portrait can’t stay still for too long though and the elements start to go their own way - so the traditional Strauss epilogue only gets half the ending it might have had.  But being true to his material Strauss leaves a day in the life of his family in the way the family - indeed many families would recognise….

Is it a great symphony - perhaps not. Is it a unique, daring and heartfelt work - yes, it is.  And is it worth hearing - of course.

Here’s Lorin Maazel in his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic


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